Interview with Nicholas Rowe: Conferences – ‘When you get what you want, but not what you need’

An interview with conferences scholar Nicholas Rowe to mark his new publication in ‘International Journal of Research in Education and Science’.

Emily: Congratulations on your new publication, “‘When You Get What You Want, But Not What You Need’: The Motivations, Affordances and Shortcomings of Attending Academic/Scientific Conferences”! I have some questions I would like to ask you, which draw out some of the themes and key questions in your article. My first question relates to the fact that conferences are an under-researched phenomenon, which you have remarked on in this and other publications. So, why do you think conferences are so under-researched?

Nicholas: That is a very interesting question, and one that you might presume academics would have looked into long ago. Both in research attention and in academic practice, conferences seem to be very much a secondary form of professional activity. Lots of people have (and express) views on conferences, but these are often subjective and opinion-based. But, as this blog and a growing number of sources show, the research interest in conferences is growing, and the professional obligation to take a critical look at this everyday part of our professional practice is taking root. From my perspective, the findings of my research reinforce the importance of making this element of academic practice both efficient in achieving its goals, and sustainable in offering a return for investments of time, effort and money.

In academia and higher education, the main ‘bread and butter’ work revolves around research and teaching. Research tends to be conducted either in confined groups or individually, and does not need the ad-hoc input of conference delegates. That is not to say that such input might not be beneficial, but more often than not, research can be conducted from a lab or computer without much external input. So, this fact tends to push it to the background as a research topic.

Academics also tend to adopt a positive perspective on what we do as professionals. Because we attend conferences for mainly positive reasons (to share our work, access cutting edge and self-improving information, build collaborations, make connections, etc.), then we assume that our conference activities have to be good. So (and forgive me if this comes across as a little cynical) we get to put together papers and presentations that are significantly easier (or at least take less time) to produce than journal articles, they undergo a much ‘lighter’ form of peer review (I covered the realistic potential for review in an earlier mapping review on poster presentation), we get to ‘perform’ for 20-30 minutes, and rarely is there time for the type of demanding questions or challenges we face with our journal articles. Then, when we have ‘done our bit’, we mainly get to set our own agenda in terms of what we attend, who we engage with, how much we engage, etc. So, what’s not to like? It’s not really in our interest to look for fault in what we do, or examine how effective it is (especially if the bill is being footed whole or in part by someone else), so I think the academic community is  somewhat culpable for not having looked at conferences as an area of research.

In the article, I distinguish between ‘what we want’ and ‘what we get’. There is a ‘Mertonian’ attitude towards scientific practice which maintains that communication is the principal reason for sharing our work at conferences, but this is clearly flawed: according to reported publication rates, 70% of oral papers and 99% of posters are not transposed into published journal articles. Moreover, if we look at the size of our gathered audiences at conferences (sessional as opposed to keynote or plenary), they are seldom representative of a decent percentage of the delegate body. At the last Society for Research into Higher Education conference in the UK I attended, despite averaging a 14-hour working day, I accessed less than 11% of the published programme, and spoke meaningfully with less than 6% of the gathered delegates (see also my earlier Conference Inference post). So, in terms of effective communication, conferences (beyond small size events) are not effective in their current form.

It has also been said that scientists make ‘gifts’ to the scientific community in terms of research findings, and get recognition in return (see Gross & Fleming’s chapter in Social Knowledge in the Making), and sometimes I feel conferences go in this direction, but on a superficial scale of appreciation – our gathered peer group is not really representative of today’s globally networked peer communities. I have a feeling that many of us are aware of the shortcomings of conferences in terms of non-subjective or tangible outcomes, but as we enjoy them and are often supported and encouraged to participate, they are generally perceived as ‘good’ things. However, if you challenge the Mertonian perspective by looking at academic productivity, then conferences, conference outputs and professional networking tend to raise a lot of challenging aspects, especially when looked at from a return on investment or non-subjective value perspective.

I think researching conferences challenges established traditions and perspectives, and also the practices of millions of delegates who attend and present. Additionally, conferences are a multi-billion dollar industry (I have calculated this), with an associated stream of tax revenue, job creation etc. … There are lots of sectors which would rather things stayed undisturbed, so I imagine there are many alternative areas of research that have a lesser potential for conflict.

Emily: On p. 716 of your article, you mention the delegate types that Gupta and Ali (2014) came up with, such as ‘Wandering Delegates’ and ‘Socialite Delegates’, but note that these delegate types are based more on opinion than evidence. These delegate types are intriguing – did you see these types reflected in your empirical study on conference attendance?

Nicholas: Some of the types came through. Generally we enjoy travel, as long as it is not burdensome or obligating (the Wandering Delegate). You can spot people emerging from the trade exhibitions with multiple bags, highlighters, Post It notes, etc. (Stallion Delegates), Socialite Delegates shed their day job personas to make the most of every social occasion, and there is always the ‘Star’ who holds forth both on and off the podium. However, in my experience most of the people tend to be ‘Standard Delegates’ who are relatively selfless, ego free, and easy going. People all have their own agendas, but at conferences it is also necessary to think of the wider peer community, and to ask ourselves how our work actively benefits others.

Emily: Your own interest has lain with posters at conferences, including your recent book, Academic and Scientific Poster Presentation – what is it about posters that tempted you to conduct such substantial work on them?

Nicholas: Disappointment! In 2008, I presented my first ever poster in an evidence-based medicine conference in Sicily. I had worked really hard to put it together, used all sorts of images, graphs, and rhetorical techniques. I even had a pseudo-equation to get my point over …but apart from a few ‘lukewarm’ takers (most of whom I am sure were just being polite), people just ‘walked on by’. However, sat with a glass of sherry in the bar (they served really good chilled sherry), I struck up a conversation about what these posters did, who saw them, who would see them in the future, and what might make them better. This conversation led to a number of papers, some survey studies, innovation papers, etc., and as I uncovered more findings and perspectives on posters, I also discovered the elephant in the academic room… conferences. Throughout these research projects, I have discovered no evidence to refute my earliest perceptions that academics weren’t using conferences (or posters) to their full potential, and there was much more to be had.

Of course, conferences are often fleeting experiences – full on when you’re there, but the ideas and enthusiasm often dissipate when we get back to the pit face. So, because few researchers have paid much attention to my line of research, I started to amass irrefutable facts that would underline just how big an issue conferences are. My PhD defence is coming up in December, and there I will show just why conferences (and posters) are something we cannot continue to ignore. As a taster…the discipline of medicine ‘wastes’ between 1.86–8.36 billion USD per year on undeveloped conference papers (a review of 79 studies pinned the ‘waste’ at 55%). When you consider that there are 50 or so main disciplines, hundreds of sub-disciplines, and still more ‘splinter disciplines’, then I defy anyone to defend maintaining the status quo. The permissible level of the inefficiency of the poster medium will remain subjective unless specific markers are used to identify their existing value, and this also applies to conference outputs as a whole. So, although this line of enquiry is still in its formative stages, the figures all point to our current practices being wasteful and in relation to the scale of our investment (time, effort and money) … unsustainable.

Emily: I was interested in a remark that one of your research participants made about poster presentations, ‘When a senior scientist like myself does a poster presentation, this [would] be considered ridiculous’ (p. 720). What do you think about this? Are posters the realm of the early career researcher?

Nicholas: At a conference in Paris, I talked with one poster presenter. With two PhDs and an MD, he said he enjoyed the chance to speak to people about his work, and explain it in a different way than he did in articles and books. We moved on to how much information scientists were willing to divulge in their conference presentations, and he looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘all of the data you need is on this poster, however you would have to know what it meant and how to use it for it to be any use to you’. He subconsciously looked around the hall (@ 500 posters) and said … ‘I know for a fact that there are only about three other people on the planet who could understand and misappropriate my data, but two of them are here…I will keep an eye on them!’ My studies have shown that, although posters tend to be dismissed as a ‘junior activity’, this is probably because of the difficulty they have in gaining focused attention (and acclaim), and not because of any issues of quality, ability, or that other false-hood of the ‘safe presentation environment’ – try standing by a limited set of data on a poster, then answer any ad-hoc questions that are thrown at you by complete strangers: it’s not as easy (to do well) as people think.

Emily: Some of your participants discussed submitting presentation abstracts only in order to gain funding to be able to attend a conference, and you found that this approach was already being discussed in a 1963 UNESCO report. Do you think that this affects the quality of conferences, or that it is such a normalised practice that academics think of conferences and submitting an abstract in the same breath, so that it becomes a chicken and egg scenario?

Nicholas: I don’t myself see anything ‘normal’ in submitting only an abstract: an abstract has to be a summary of something bigger. So we have our conference paper (which should be available in full), our conference presentation (where the abstract acts as a ‘taster’ of what might be coming up in a 20-30 minute presentation), or a poster abstract (which may well be lost in the mountains of other poster abstracts, and attracts little purposeful attention). However, I feel it is important to consider what academics want to achieve when presenting research at conferences, and if I cobbled something together just to justify going to a particular event (and normally to justify getting some funding towards it), I would feel a bit of a fraud, when I rubbed shoulders with those who really wanted to share their research. As a manager, I would be far more impressed if someone could simply say why this particular event was so important or useful for them to attend, and give a fairly convincing description of what they wanted to achieve, and what they would do with what they learned. Ok, the event may have one fewer poster, but when you consider that last year’s Neuroscience meeting in the USA had 15,700 posters – would one fewer be such a bad thing?

Emily: I think your distinction between conferences providing what people want vs need is helpful and a useful point for future thinking – where do you want to take this work next?   

Nicholas: I think firstly, based on the evidence that is available, there is a legitimate and pressing need for conferences to be considered as a specific area of continuing education and development. This is supported by the global levels of multi-disciplinary engagement, and also because of the insufficient return on investment they offer. Yes, they’re great – yes, we have a good time, but is their longevity, reliability, open knowledge sharing, efficient communication or demonstrated learning worth our investments of billions of taxpayers’ money every year?

Not yet, but they could be. For so many years we have relied on the peer-reviewed journal article as the staple ‘academic currency’, but what if conference outputs and activities could be developed into measurable and valued markers of professional engagement? Text and speech can be translated into text relatively reliably, and this then reaches global audiences (as opposed to the few people in the room at the conference). There are post-publication peer reviews which can help test and establish value. There are all sorts of ways of storing text, image and audio files, so that presentations can be seen in full beyond the ‘live’ event. Longer papers, vlogs, podcasts, etc., are also an option: we can communicate through a wide variety of channels. We can control who sees our work, and how they can use it. We can see who engages with us, how often, where from, how our work makes a difference … and it can all be used to show not only what we contribute to the global research community, but the degree to which we participate in our global networks.

Physical conferences are great and will be a continuing feature of the academic landscape. However, they have to be developed to bring greater good to more people. Conferences will still make their money (and probably more) from the real-time delegates, but if they can give increased returns in terms of effective communication and the effective dissemination of research, then they not only provide what people want, but also what they need. Atul Butte (2012) said that: “Hiding within those mounds of data is knowledge that could change the life of a patient, or change the world. If I don’t analyze those data and show others how to do it, too, I fear that no one will.”  It was the same thing that drove me to look at posters and conferences … and I’m not finished yet!

About Nicholas Rowe

Nicholas RoweNicholas Rowe is an educationalist, with trans-disciplinary interests in scientific communication and professional development. He is a dual fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and the Society for Education and Training, and has been researching posters and conferences since 2009. He has lectured internationally on the topic and published a range of related academic works. He now lives in Finnish Lapland.


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